Grumpy Old Rock Star Rick Wakeman, the former Strawbs/Yes keyboardist and solo artist whose career spans more than half a century, delivered an impassioned speech about music and the state of the industry at this year's Tom Olsen Lecture in the 'journalists' church', St. Bride's, Fleet Street, London last night.
Focusing on the 'shameful' dropping of music from our schools' national curriculum, the prog-rocker also worked up a lather over the way our music industry has failed musicians. He blamed 'replacement' for the loss of musical genres and styles which all too often spells the collapse of earnings for its writers and performers. He also cited technology as something of a 'curse that at times outweighs its blessings'; called for the internet to be brought under greater control; for a greater range of professional orchestras to be restored; for formatted radio and playlists to be abolished in favour of the return of creative DJs with their own eclectic record collections; and for music to be widely available in proper shops again. In his heyday, he noted, London boasted no fewer than seventeen fully-functional recording studios, all of which he worked in. At the time of writing, there are two.
The former Royal College of Music student told of his tuneful awakening at the age of five; of the realisation, at the advent of Lonnie Donegan and Skiffle, that anybody could be in a band; charmed his audience back through the 'Baroque & Roll' period of the 17th to mid 18th Centuries, when the first 'show-off musicians' came to the fore: Antonio Vivaldi, the wild-haired priest who performed in his clerical robes; and Franz Liszt and Fryderyk Chopin, who toured to huge crowds, with women fainting at their feet. Rick wrote the score for Ken Russell's mad 1975 movie 'Lisztomania' - the Pope was played by Ringo Starr, and priapic, prancing Roger Daltrey was Liszt - describing his mother's delight convoluting to horror as Rick's own role in the piece evolved.
His knowledge of the great classical composers is beyond scholarly. He revealed his personal favourites, and what they mean to him: Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninoff ... Dawson (Les) ... and performed a hilarious pastiche of nursery rhymes showcasing their disparate styles.
The piece de résistance was his recollection of Seventies pop star Cat Stevens - better known, today, as the education philanthropist Yusuf Islam - hiring Rick to compose, arrange and perform the piano part on his rendition of the Christian hymn 'Morning has Broken' in 1971, for his album 'Teaser and the Firecat'. The original hymn being less than a minute long, it was Rick's inspired imaginings, trills, repetitions and key-changes which extended and brought it to life. For this, he was paid no more than the standard session musician's fee of £9, which he didn't receive for thirty seven years. The track, released as a single, was an international hit. It remains instantly recognisable forty five years later. Rick was never credited for his significant contribution. He concludes, however, that the song is a beautiful piece of music 'that has helped bring people closer to religious truth', and is 'grateful' to have played a part in it.
As he performed it, eyes wide shut, all but oblivious of his audience, one could hear an eyelash drop.
THE OLSEN LECTURE
Tom Olsen had a long career in journalism both in London and the provinces. He worked as reporter, leader-writer, editor and author. He loved writing, which he did under both his real name and the nom de plume John Morrell. He also adored the grape, and spent the last fifteen years of his life as the wine correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.
Tom loved St Bride's, which in his day shared Fleet Street with the national press. When Tom died in 1987, it was decided that his memory should be perpetuated through a trust bearing his name, with the aim of furthering the work of St Bride’s. Lawyers, writers, politicians and others have given the annual address down the years. Past speakers include David Attenborough, PD James, Peter Hitchens, The Archbishop of Canterbury, John Simpson, Lord Rees-Mogg, Sir Oliver Popplewell, Jane Asher, the Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe, the Hon. George Osborne and Nigel Farage MEP. The lecture is an important event on the St. Bride's calendar.